Darren Brown's specials on Netflix are nothing short of fascinating, they are what happens when someone who is obsessed with human behavior instead of choosing a career path and psychology or psychiatry decides to become an entertainer. And it's that obsession that I wanted to tap into so I could better understand what it takes to be happy. This is a bit of optimism.
It's very nice to meet you, I have to say. Oh, well, very nice. Very, very nice to meet you. You and I are both interested in happiness. Yeah, but not the pursuit of it, which is ironic. Yes.
It's one of those big nouns which is better off living as a verb, as something active, rather than just this sort of thing. The moment you see it as a thing, you start to think, well, I'm entitled to it or something that other people have and I don't. Or it's some kind of birthright or something you're going to know when you achieve it. And all of those which turned out not to be true.
I think it's an activity, isn't it, something you're constantly grasping at. Maybe hold onto it for a second, then it leaves. I like this idea of happy as a verb to happy, so happy. Yeah, I like that. I'm happy with my friends this afternoon. It was really fun.
I think generally we should unpack nouns into verbs as much as possible because life is complex and messy and all those nouns are us trying to reduce complex and messy things to something, you know, that our ego can neatly stack away and move on. And we obviously need to do that in order to navigate this strange world. But every now and then unpacking those things, particularly when it comes to partners and relationships, you know, that's really important, isn't it, not to just see them as a kind of a a thing that is, you know, contained and you've worked that out and you can move on as much as you can lead in the mystery of another person.
No, I really like this idea. I talk about this in terms of corporate values. Yeah.
You know, where companies put their corporate values on the wall and they're all nouns, you know, integrity, innovation, honesty, you know, and you can't walk into someone's office and say a little more innovation today, please, Steve. You know, it doesn't work that way. What am I supposed to do? And so I am always advocating that values should be written as verbs because you want to do them. Yeah. You know, so it's not honesty.
It's tell the truth. It's not integrity. It's do the right thing. It's not innovation. It's look at the problem from a different angle. Those I can measure, those I can hold people accountable too. And those are doable things and you can demonstrate improvement even.
And so I really like this idea of happy is a verb, but even relationships.
I'm girlfriend and I'm boyfriend rather than this is my girlfriend or this is my boyfriend. Yeah. That it is a job that I do I boyfriend. You know, this is something, it's an activity and it takes a lot of work and I'll never be perfect at it. Yeah.
And it also gets over that, you know, that thing of like can you should you change your partner. So, you know, you end up with this conflict. One person says if you love me, you you wouldn't want to change me. And then the other person's going, well, why wouldn't I want to change you and help you become a better person?
But part of the solution to that conflict, if you see this person as an ever changing, evolving person, like a bird, like if you kind of denounce them, if you just remember that they are an ever evolving mystery, then suddenly you can love them for what they are as somebody that is changing and evolving.
But doesn't someone have to see themselves as evolving also? I mean, this is an interesting question. Can someone who sees themselves evolving?
Date someone and have a successful relationship with someone who who doesn't see themselves as evolving, like, don't you either have to both be stagnant or both be evolver to have a successful relationship?
That's a tricky one, isn't it? That's that's kind of the task of life. I'm 50 next year, and I'm kind of aware now of very much I think it's particularly and that's the second half of life that we've probably had this whole project for the first half of life of ambition and trying to stake a claim in the world. And that's sort of an axis between the ego, between ourselves and the world. And you kind of you do that, you slay your dragon and then you have to rescue the princess.
The second half of life then seems to be more about serving something bigger, perhaps, or digging more into a sort of a relationship between the ego and the self, finding out more like what were you supposed to be before the demands of the world kind of distracted you.
You know, you spend the first half of your life kind of pursuing these, trying to stake a claim in the world. And then I think I think you really do become aware of it after a certain point that that goes so far and then you do need to evolve.
There is a kind of a shift that needs to happen.
I agree with a caveat, which is I'd completely agree that in the latter stages of our lives, it seems that we want to pursue something bigger, that we want to leave legacy. These kinds of words are used, but I don't think it's a condition of age in the sense that the first half is for this part of our life.
In the second half of is for that half of our life.
I think it's when we reach the middle age, when we reach the second stage of our lives, we just become more aware of our own mortality.
And then we start asking ourselves the question, well, was my life worth living? Because I think young people are ambitious because they're not yet thinking they don't have the same sense of their own mortality facing them. And so ideally, why can't a 21 year old be concerned about their legacy and be concerned with living with purpose, living on purpose? Why not start young?
But to your point, for some reason, it only seems to occur to us when we reach milestones like 50.
Yeah, yeah. I've never had any ambition of any sort where I mean I'm forty nine. So yeah, a few years ago, sort of early, early forties, I really got into the works of the Stoics and my normal day job is, you know, I've had a twenty year career in the UK with a sort of strange evolution of propaganda's magic and hypnosis, and it's now become these giant psychological experiments that I put people through. And I also have a stage show that I thought I was just managed to squeeze in a Broadway run before them, before everything just disappeared there.
So I sort of tried to kind of move it into a different area. One strange branch, I guess, is what I do now is is writing about these things. So I wrote a big book on happiness.
Your first book was called Happy. Yeah. And your second book was called Happy. Got a little Happiness. And it is just a little version of Happy.
What surprised you in the research of that book? What did you as you were discovering the research went, huh? No kidding. I got it all wrong.
Well, actually, what surprised me was that it really resonated with me. As I said, I was never ambitious. I studied law, supposed to be a lawyer, you and me both. By the time I graduated, I wasn't really interested and I was already starting to perform and that interested me more. So I kind of avoided the sort of career path and. Felt a little bit like a child in a world of grown ups, and that feeling come to me for a for a long time and then you start to feel like you've you must be doing something wrong because everybody's everybody's grown up and you're not.
And I think one of the things that the Stoics so stoicism was that I'm sure many of your listeners will know is a 20 year old school of philosophy that was hugely popular. It started with the Greeks and it really exploded during the Roman times. And it was the main kind of rival as Christianity sort of exploded into the world. So they had to the early Christians had to bring a lot of the stoic ideas on board themselves to win the Stoics over.
So for that reason, a lot of these stoic ideas are still familiar with us nowadays.
And it really leads into this idea of what you choose to attach to and whether you choose to pay attention to what's within or what's outside and where you kind of hook or your ideas of happiness. And I found that actually my sort of general lack of ambition and preference to do well, to just sort of think is my life at the moment, as I'd like it to be, rather than fixating on something that is, you know, kind of on the horizon, actually could be a perfectly sensible and happy way of being.
And as far as I as I read them, it really resonated with me.
How do we find happiness in these times of awkwardness and stress? Well, again, there's that problem of the word being a little easy to throw around as a noun like it's a thing you can find. What the Stoics presented, which was a really interesting thing, is actually a quite specific way of approaching something like happiness. So they saw it as an avoidance of unnecessary disturbance, a an avoidance of kind of unnecessary anxiety.
And this is an interesting idea when, woops, that's exactly what we're living, you know, necessary disturbance.
This idea is really stayed with us for a long time. So Freud, for example, when Freud created talking therapy, his model was not about making people happy. His aim was to restore natural unhappiness, as he called it. Life is basically going to be unhappy a lot of the time. But you don't want to be unnaturally unhappy. You just want to kind of, you know, get your levels of happiness and unhappiness about right. So the stoic notion is about avoiding unnecessary disturbance, as they call it.
So it's the opposite of the kind of classic modern optimism model. It's not pessimism at all, but it's a kind of certain strategic pessimism, I guess, but it is sort of the opposite. So the model is kind of this. If you try and control things that are out of your control, you're obviously going to create all sorts of needless anxiety, which kind of makes sense.
So the only things you can control and therefore the only things to pay attention to. Well, what are they? Well, they are your thoughts and your actions and really that's it. And everything outside of that, what other people do, what other people think, outcomes that you have no control over, everything else that's kind of in the world you can't control. Now, the classic sort of optimism model. Sort of cheats you into telling you you can if you set your goals and off, if you believe in yourself enough, if you do your vision board of you, whatever, if you put this stuff out in the universe that the universe will provide, and that can be great and it can feel great.
But the trouble is, it's going to let you down at some point and it doesn't leave you with much other than a feeling.
You do know that the title of my podcast is a bit of optimism, right?
So basically what you're saying is if you come here, you're going to be let down?
I think life is eventually one way or the other takes us to difficult points. And if you have any philosophy or school of thought, it needs to help you in those moments.
What I actually like about that, the freude thing naturally unhappy. Yeah, I actually think I understand what he was trying to say, which is it's actually not about being naturally unhappy.
Yeah, it's about a baseline and the baseline should be relatively low. In other words, manage your expectations. You know, if you're 19 years old and you're planning on being a millionaire by the time you're 25, that's not entirely in your control.
It may or may not happen. Odds are not really. But the expectation is to enjoy what you have rather than keep comparing and looking what you don't have.
I think that's what Freud was trying to say. Right?
Well, he was saying that the basic state of being alive is you're caught between what you instinctively want to do and what society allows you to do. So there's an unavoidable tension, you know. So, yeah, but the same idea has appeared with different philosophers and psychologists around.
But I have an argument with the Stoics, which is that we have to disconnect ourselves. We can only control what you know, what we control to attach ourselves to our reputations, what the world thinks of us.
It's the same mistake that Maslov made because Maslow's hierarchy of needs, as you know, the baseline is food and shelter and like three levels up as human relationships. And I've never heard of anyone committing suicide because they were hungry. We commit suicide because we're lonely.
And the mistake that Maslov made is that he only considered us as individuals and as individuals. His hierarchy is correct. Unfortunately, we are also every single day members of groups.
And this is the paradox of being human, that every day we have to reconcile putting myself first or putting the group first.
And there's an entire school of thought that says, no, no, no, you have to take care of yourself first, because if you're not healthy, you can help the group.
And there's another entire school of thought that says, no, no, no, you have to help the group first, because if you don't help them, then they can't help you when you're in need and you're both right and you're both wrong. It's a paradox. And so Maslov only got us half right. And the Stoics, it's the same way.
It ignores that we're social animals, that, of course, we care about what other people think of us. If you're in a relationship, of course you care what the other person thinks about you.
In fact, you better care what the other person thinks about you.
So the question is, is how do we take what the Stoics are telling us and reconcile that and manage it with the fact that we actually do have a responsibility in how we show up in other people's lives, how we talk to them and how we treat them and they have in ours.
I think you're absolutely right. And there are, I think, edges to stoic wisdom. I think it holds it does hold up very well.
I think it's a very robust way of thinking. But you're right. You are the right edges. Emotionless edges do come in. When you look at, you know, they didn't really have a lot to say about love and about feelings of community and so on, which is exactly this. It's all about developing a robust sense of self. So for that reason, it's kind of, you know, it leans on that side.
Well, I think it's very much about seeing life as a journey. It goes back to the happiness, right. It's life is a journey, not as an event that none of these things are events. They're moments in time. They're snapshots in the movie. But the movie still ongoing. Yeah. This is Dr. Khazars Work, Dr. James Khasi, the infinite game, which is it's ever going. And so this idea that when something bad happens, saying, well, this too will pass.
And by the way, that goes for things that are good as well, because this idea of this infinite thinking, this what you're talking about as well, you know, I think it keeps you humble even when you're on top of the world.
This, too, will pass as the idea that if the hero doesn't die in the book and the author hasn't finished the story.
Right, it's the Meander. And I think it also includes legacy because we don't want our lives to be that snapshot where we think this is it, this is my life. But rather, we hope that we can leave something behind and outlive ourselves, that we will be remembered. And I think this is where the act of service comes in, that when you live a life driven entirely by ambition and self-interest, you may achieve all your goals.
Debatable whether you'll be happy or not once you do. But you know, you may achieve all your goals. You may achieve great wealth, great fame, great success, however you want to define it, but you have weak relationships. And when you die, you take none of it with you and that's it. It's over. And the question is, what have you done for others? For example, we all have somebody from our childhood, a teacher who took a particular liking to us or took us under their wing and we can remember their names.
Tell me the name of one teacher that took a liking to you, Mr. Plasterer.
Yeah. There you go. Mr. Poster. Right now, you've probably forgotten most of the other teachers, but you can remember those ones who remembered you and for him. Mr. Pastor, he has done something to live on infinitely, he will live on beyond his own lifetime because you will say I am who I am today, in part because of him. That, to me, is a way to live a life.
And, you know, one thing that I sort of rail against this is this entire section of the bookshop called self-help. And there's no section in the bookshop called Help Others. And we're all obsessed with reading books so that we can find that elusive thing, that thing called happiness. But we're not reading a book about how we can happy that actually has an impact on the lives of others.
Well, there's right there. The word self is another noun. That should be a verb. You know, we sell our notion of self is something that is fluid and it changes and it reaches out and it extends into the world through the tools that we use. And the relationships were the idea that it's this sort of unit we can pay the sort of attention to that those self-help books suggest this is sort of wrong. They all start with the notion of themselves.
It's very odd. It reminds me of back to the question of finding happiness at this time, you know, the kind of the stoic approach, which is to essentially deal with your own stuff and separate your center of gravity, bring it in and take it out of the rest of the world and what's going on there.
But there's another completely opposed idea to that, which I think is just as important. And, you know, the world is complex, messy, so we can dip into stoicism and dip into things that are completely opposite to it. Going back to this idea that life is ultimately going to be difficult at times when those times happen, our tendency is to feel, particularly if we're, you know, subscribers to heavily optimistic model is that we've failed and that we've sort of been let down or whatever it is.
We tend to feel alone and we feel fearful and we we feel panicky. But I think what's interesting in those moments is that because life is centripetal, it will ultimately pull us to the center. It will pull us to these moments that those are the moments when we're being shown the actual weight of life. We're being shown in a strange way, we're what are most alive because we're not distracted by all the things that are going on. We've been pulled to the center.
So although we feel most alone, we're actually at the point that we share with everybody, we're actually strangely the most connected point with other people, which allows us to lean into that differently because we can then turn a kind of a sadness which might be inward directed and our sense of failure outwards into a sort of a kind of a melancholy maybe back to this idea of unnatural happiness, a sense of life. Life is difficult, but we all share in these things and that this feeling of isolation is actually something that connects us weirdly to other people, even though in the moment it wouldn't normally feel like that.
And this whole lockdown situation in this pandemic is a strangely literal demonstration of exactly that. It's a resource for us to lean into that. The things that make us feel most isolated tend to be the things that make us connect with other people.
This is interesting. You've given me a lot to think about. You know, I absolutely love this idea of these quote unquote goals that we set these abstract, arbitrary, ill defined goals like happiness, success, you know, relationship. You used relationship as well as if there is something to achieve, like now that I've got the relationship, I'm good.
And forgetting that all of these things, if anything, are actually starting points, not ending points, that if you find the thing that makes you happy now you have to do hard work to maintain. If you find someone that you think you can have a relationship with now, you have to do hard work to maintain. You know that if you find success in whatever form it takes now, you have to do the hard work. And I love the idea of seeing these things as verbs, as journeys, as ongoing pursuits, but also that they're not end goals.
They're actually starting points, they're relationships. They're all in themselves. You know, your relationships, success and failure are just. Yeah, they're ongoing activities, aren't they? Had he hasn't your expectations. How do you compare events? You expect him in a very active, complex, messy things that we're making choices about all the time. They are not these neat nouns. We only see them like that so that we can park them somewhere in our brain and not be challenged by what they demand.
Yeah. I have one more question for you, because I'm curious.
Tell me an early specific happy childhood memory, getting a huge pile of paper my mom brought back from work like a dream of paper, like 500 sheets or whatever that is. And I used to love drawing. The sheer excess of paper was staggering to me. And I would just I was an only child at that age and I was just drawing and scribbling. And I don't think I've ever had a gift that was as exciting or experienced such a kind of a such a joy for me as a kid.
It was the sheer creative sort of freedom. I feel a bit of that now when I'm painting and, you know, there's like the blank canvas and I got a day that's free to get on with it. I have a similar sort of thing, but that was a very focused I just couldn't believe the bliss of this big pile of hundreds of sheets of paper is extraordinary.
I think it has nothing to do with the drawing. It has to do with the amount of paper that your mother gave you.
If she'd given you one piece of paper, you would have had joy drawing, one drawing. She give you five pieces of paper. You would have done five drawings and been very, very happy. But what she gave you was, for a child, an infinite amount of paper.
What she gave you was opportunity. What she gave you was runway, which you gave you was Perth. And what you learned at that young age is that it took someone else. To open a path for you, to give you an opportunity to do the thing you love. Mm hmm. And perhaps that's what you do in your work. You show us a path to pursue the thing we love unencumbered by stress. Narrative attachment, and perhaps in your work, what you're attempting to do is give us each a dream of paper with infinite possibility to do things that we love.
I'll take it that's a life worth living. Yep. I mean. Yeah, I'm happy with that. That's lovely. Can I make one suggestion? Everett? Buy yourself a rim of paper. Take the plastic off. Leave that ream of paper on your desk and never use a sheet of it. It's a reminder. The reminder is that you are to provide reams of paper for the rest of us. Nice. Well, I really appreciate you taking the time to happy with me.
Well, I was being a pleasure. Nice talking to you. They're a real pleasure. Thank you for having me on. Thank you so much. Of course we will. If you enjoyed this podcast and if you'd like to hear more, please subscribe wherever you like to listen to podcasts. Until then, take care of yourself. Take care of each other.